A Tale of Two Races
Sherman Alexie returns to Albuquerque to promote his book for young adults
The novels of Native American writer Sherman Alexie often concern themselves with the matter of race, a difficult proposition no matter how carefully it's approached—even if it’s in the guise of a book for young adults. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, recently named a finalist for the 2007 National Book Awards in Young People's Literature, is Alexie's first venture into this brand of storytelling. Like his earlier novels Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, Alexie's protagonist, a Spokane High Schooler named Junior, is caught between two worlds: that of reservation life and that of the white man's.
Junior's story is a semi-autobiographical journey going back and forth between two different societies: the small town of Reardan, Wash., where Alexie also went to school, and the reservation. The decision of the protagonist to enroll at an all-white high school after spending much time as an outsider among his own people leads to his being shunned on the rez more than ever. His closest friend, Rowdy, becomes his worst enemy and brands him a “white lover.”
As the only nonwhite kid at Reardan, Junior's tale becomes a self-deprecating personal journal, interspersed with illustrations by the wonderful Ellen Forney. Just because this is a book written for a younger audience doesn't mean Alexie shelved his unique brand of risky, acerbic wit. Among the masturbation references and schoolyard jokes are his unique and unforgettable examinations of race and racism. Take this passage:
“I was the only kid, white or Indian, who knew that Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. And let me tell you, we Indians were the worst of times and those Reardan kids were the best of times. Those kids were magnificent. They knew everything. And they were beautiful. They were beautiful and smart. They were beautiful, smart and epic. They were filled with hope. I don't know if hope is white. But I do know hope for me is like some kind of mythical creature.”
If it sounds as if Alexie gives the Native American side a raw deal, it's because he does. Like his other books and stories, Alexie alternates between nostalgic yearning and disgusted mortification with his own Native characters. In this case, it's his dysfunctional extended family.
For Alexie, the heart of Native American life is ever burdened by an absence of hope and persisting self-hatred. With every friend made and new opportunity reached, Junior faces the devils of booze, poverty, death and tragedy after nearly every long walk home. There is hope to be found, as well as joy: Junior lands on the varsity basketball team.
Alexie's writing is, as ever, a combination of otherwise opposed alchemical elements that comes off as natural and sweet as honey. Among the cultural satire, comic self-reproach and alternating moments of shocking tragedy and bittersweet humor, Junior's story is that of young reconciliation with a home life one would rather just as soon forget, made possible by his first daring venture into the world.
Sherman Alexie will be speaking and reading from The Absolutley True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. at UNM's Woodward Hall. Tickets cost $5 for general admission, $3 for students and teachers. For more info, visit www.bkwrks.com.